At the request of my friend and fellow contributor to The American Catholic, Darwin Catholic, I will elaborate more on some of the general points I introduced to the discussion over his latest post about economic morality. For those who did not follow the exchange (of me versus everyone, understandable on this somewhat more conservative blog), I questioned the accuracy of any scientific theory of economics that did not take into account class conflict (or, as some insist on saying, “class struggle”). Darwin and others responded by questioning the validity of the very category of class. Hence, we have a great deal of ground to cover – I hope you will bear with me, and that we all end up learning something.
The first thing to be said about the “class” category is that it has held a few different meanings over time, as has the more specific concept of “class conflict”. One of the first great works of historical analysis, Thyucidides’ History of the Peloponnesian War often presents us with one version of class conflict – that of “the rich” and “the poor”, who struggle respectively for oligarchic and democratic political systems. Likewise, the first great treatise on politics in the annals of Western political thought, Aristotle’s Politics is also preoccupied with class dynamics and conflicts. Arguably one of Aristotle’s most pressing goals was to discover how to harmonize the various classes of the ancient polity.
In Aristotle we can actually see an approach to class conflict that would eventually make its way into the modern Catholic social doctrine, consisting of an account of both the strengths and weaknesses of the contending classes, what their objective role in a well-functioning soceity ought to be, and what the rights and duties are with respect to the greater society. Theorists of different political persuasions have mined Politics for arguments that can be applied to modern debates; conservatives find a staunch defense of private property (which I happen to share), while those on perhaps the ‘center left’ will find a strong emphasis on curbing both excess wealth and poverty for the common good, particularly in a classic statement in book IV:
Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme- either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an oligarchy; but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them.
For the ancients, then, the existence of classes and their periodic conflicts were a fact of social and political life. Aristotle himself casually dismissed at least one kind of individualism when he declared that man was, by nature, a social being – and that any man who presumed to live as an individual, outside of society (or in opposition to it), would either have to be a “beast or a god”.
In modern times, the word “class” has taken on more meanings. Conflicting schools of sociology have conflicting notions of what a class is. The “functionalist” school, and many modern commentators engaged in casual observations of society, tend to think of class in terms of income, of personal wealth, or even cultural preferences. A poor person who enjoys fine art might be said to “have class” while a wealthy parvenu who spends inordinate amounts of money on gold jewlery and other garish signs of wealth might be thought of as “lacking class”. Most often, however, “class” is related to income and perhaps in a secondary sense to occupation. A person is “rich” or “middle class” or “poor”; a person is a “blue collar” or a “white collar” worker, “skilled” or “unskilled”, “temporary” or “professional”, and so on.
What is called in sociology “conflict theory”, readers would probably know better as classical Marxism. And in Marxism class takes on a new and, what Marx and Engels would argue, scientific meaning. For the Marxists “class” signifies a definite relationship between a group of people and the productive forces of society. In the most popular dichotomy there are “proletarians” and “capitalists”, with the former owning nothing except their capacity to perform labor and the latter owning of the means of production.
Class conflict is for Marx and Engles the motor force of history, made inevitable in that the classes ultimately represent two distinct and often impersonal social forces – the productive forces in their constant development, and the relations of production in their static existence. To put it as simply as I can, because technology is always changing, the real relationship between man and the means of production is also always changing. But the law is fixed or changes rather slowly, and it is forged in an earlier time before the technology changed. The law is what defines the property forms of a given society and protects the class status quo at the time they are established, but the technological progress of mankind continues without respect to these forms and evetually begins to outgrow them. The ‘progressive class’ is that which has an interest in overthrowing the existing relations while the ‘reactionary class’ is that which has an interest in maintaining them – whether they know it or not (they all fight it out eventually).
The conflict, therefore, is inevitable. And I believe there is a great deal of truth to this theory when it is properly understood and applied to the last 500 years or so, but it is also missing some very important things as well, starting with an underestimation or outright denial of free will and morality.
Having surveyed different meanings of class, what role does it play, must it play, in economic science? If we are speaking of purely mathematical models, it doesn’t appear to have any necessary role at all. It is, however, when deciding first what the aims of policy ought to be, and secondly how to achieve those aims, that the class perspective begins to matter a great deal. I am not going to distinguish between the different meanings of class from here on, because in this day and age I think they overlap too often to really pull them apart.
In the classical and the modern Catholic view of society, the political is indispensable to the shaping of a well-ordered society. In what I see as the modern neoliberal view (and I don’t presume to say that anyone who posts or comments here is necessarily a neoliberal), the primary concern is with ‘economic growth’. Sometimes these two aims are harmonious. At other times, they appear to be in dissonance. And it is when they appear to be in dissonance that the class view is necessary.
For instance, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict notes time and again that much of the gains of the global economy have been unevenly distributed. There is growth, but it is not well shared. I understand that there are plausible neoliberal explanations and rationalizations for these imbalances. But I also must acknowledge the arguments I often see that justify great inequalities not only on moral grounds, i.e. private property rights, but also on utilitarian grounds. The great inequalities, it is said, result from perfectly legitimate business pursuits and are the price society must pay for economic growth and technological progress. It is also acknowledged that perhaps as time goes on the rising tide will eventually lift “all boats”. But long before any such thing is likely to occur, violent class struggles may also, with greater probability I believe, break out with the potential of setting back human progress even further.
For even if some of the contributors here do not recognize such possibilities, the US government has and does, especially now in the grips of an economic crisis. Contingency plans have been developed specifically for scenarios of economic unrest leading to political turmoil and social chaos. Even if the sort of social chaos that could unfold as a result of an economic collapse does not see the populace coalescing into class-conscious political parties and factions, the great inequalities of wealth will serve as both a real and a symbolic cause of popular anger and hatred at the existing order.
It is therefore not, in my view, a good idea to try and force or even strongly convince the majority of people to swallow what they would see as the most bitter medicine – further cuts in wages and benefits in order to stay ‘competitive’ with third world labor, further reductions of the social safety net, further erosions of labor rights, of public education, and other publicly funded programs. While each of these institutions may be flawed and in need of reform, a set of policies that only looks at the GDP and pays little heed to the distribution of the national wealth is certainly not prudent.
Some will undoubtedly argue that it is either immoral or imprudent to ‘take from the rich and give to the poor’. I would argue that Catholic social teaching clearly shows that we all have a moral duty to contribute, through a fair regime of progressive taxation, to the maintenance of society. On the other hand those who argue that redistribution is “immoral” usually don’t apply that to the military or other programs they deem necessary (some anarchists do, and credit to them for consistency).
Moreover if this wealth redistribution is indeed the only alternative to social decay, class conflict and violent revolution, then it would be both immoral and imprudent not to do it. I would argue that this has been the case at several points throughout history and in practically every country in the world. To the Catholic Church, this threat was real and it was immanent (and remains so today). The seriousness with which it viewed class struggle and conflict cannot possibly be overstated, as anyone who reads the opening paragraphs of Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno would be compelled to recognize.
It will also be noted that at each juncture in the development of Catholic social thought, including the most recent, lavish displays of wealth by the ruling class are condemned as inspiring hatred and envy. Those who intice others to sin are as guilty as the sinner (see QA 134-35). There can be no moral justification for obscene amounts of conspicuous consumption and gluttonus lifestyles in the midst of hardship and suffering. As Pope Benedict says, this situation is “unacceptable”. (CV 22)
At the very least it must be understood that no one (well, almost no one, anyway) wants to simply “soak the rich” for the fun of it. Rather, taking a cue from Aristotle, it becomes evident that great inequalities in wealth not only lead to class resentment and conflict, but also to disproportionate political influence. Then a snowball effect kicks in – more wealth and power leads to more wealth and power, while the inverse remains true for those on bottom.
All of this being said, my actual preference is not for a greater regime of wealth redistribution via taxes and government programs. I believe there is a better way, but that redistribution is the best option as of right now. I only side with it prudentially for the moment as an alternative to privatization and neoliberalism, which I believe would unleash social unrest that would destroy society (as it has in Latin America dozens of times).
As for the better alternative to both of these paradigms: We stand at a crossroads where more power can be granted to employers over workers, with all of the resulting immediate miseries for the latter (in spite of whatever long-term, widely diffused benefits may appear down the line) or, more workers can become their own employers in part or in full. Economic democracy is the challenge of our time, a phrase appearing a couple of times in Caritas and well worth paying attention to. Potentially destructive class conflict can practically vanish wherever worker-ownership models thrive. Conflicts between businesses and communities, another serious concern of the Holy Father, can also be mitigated. The dignity of the human person becomes fully respected in a ‘community of solidarity’, as the Compendium describes the ideal Catholic business.
On a final note (if you’re still here, you have my admiration for getting to this point), economic democracy as I understand it, and as I think Catholic social teaching understands it, is not at all incompatible with markets. Those concerned with the “laws of economics” need not be concerned with these ideas, unless they include in those laws a notion that only great and vast personal fortunes and company profits that dwarf the GDP of several developing nations are a necessary condition of technological and cultural progress.
On a final final note, I am predicting that I will be overwhelmed with dissenting opinions. Please forgive me if I cannot and do not respond to them all. To Darwin I will respond because he kindly requested this post. To all others I will respond to on the condition that they ask questions in a respectful manner and do not assume something about me or my argument that isn’t clearly in it, i.e. that I’m some sort of Marxist (seeing the validity of historical materialism doesn’t mean I agree at all with its underlying philosophy or its political implications). Overtly hostile posts will be summarily deleted.